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Thursday, 01 June 2017 00:23

Acronis Backup 12.5 a business back-up bonanza (review)

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Acronis Backup 12.5 is an easy-to-use, yet still powerful multi-platform back-up solution with an all-important active protection against ransomware.

The data protection demigods at Acronis have just released the latest version of its business-class Acronis Backup software, taking it to version 12.5.

It’s a major update to its business back-up product line, and merges Acronis Backup 12 and Acronis Backup 11.7 into one solution, with 170 new features to truly make this a must-have update. 

Just a handful of these new features are a unified Web interface, support for six hypervisors, back-up validation, blockchain-based data certification and possibly the most important new feature of all: protection against ransomware.

We’re not just talking about something to protect Windows desktops either, but an entire cross-section of business environments. 

This is evident when you understand that Acronis Backup 12.5 works with more than 20 platforms, including Microsoft Windows, Office 365, Azure, Amazon EC2, Linux, Mac OS X, Oracle, VMWare, Hyper-V, Red Hat Virtualisation, Linux KVM, Citrix XenServer, iOS, and Android devices. 

Yes, it won’t protect your Commodore 64, but as these are only used in the fictional “business” environment seen in “John Wick, Chapter 2”, we’ll let Keanu take Bill and Ted on an excellent C64 adventure while the rest of us have fun backing up our much more important real-world business matrix. 

It’s not just for various operating systems, either. With Acronis Backup 12.5 you can back up Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Exchange, Active Directory, and Oracle Database and perform granular database recovery without having to recover the entire disk.

While most businesses do try to limit themselves to a small number of platforms, for simplicity’s sake, the Acronis solution gives them complete freedom to evolve their infrastructure. The multi-platform functionality of this product can prove to be useful for migrating workloads from one platform to another, assisting businesses to adopt cloud-based services without losing any data.

After all, with the great power that an evolving infrastructure gives you comes the great responsibility of keeping it running smoothly, properly backed up, and easily restorable, so whether you use one platform or a dozen plus, Acronis Backup 12.5 stands ready. 

In this review we’ll perform a fresh Acronis Backup 12.5 installation, configure and run a back-up, certify data with blockchain, test ransomware protection, add second server with a different operating system, and attempt data restoration. 

A friend who wishes to remain nameless helps a range of business clients stay backed-up. He helped me to test this new version of Acronis Backup 12.5 in a range of virtual machines, as we were both interested in seeing how the new solution fared, and as I don’t personally have a bunch of servers ready and running.  

I was grateful for the help, so let’s dive in! 

Installation

To run Acronis Backup 12.5 you need to install Acronis Backup Management Server on a Microsoft Windows or Linux server, and Acronis Backup agent on every machine that you wish to protect. 

Acronis Backup Management Server provides a Web-based management interface and Acronis Backup agent connects the remote device to the server, performs back-ups and transfers data to a specified storage location.

Acronis Backup 12.5 comes in two editions, Standard and Advanced. Both share the same installation file and come with a 30-day free full-featured trial period. The Advanced edition includes enterprise features suitable for larger infrastructures.

The installation process took the promised three clicks, with additional configuration options hidden behind the “Customise installation settings” link should you wish to enable any of them. 

However, the software is smart enough to work out the best installation environment without any user input, which is the way an intelligent installer should work. 

Turn your mobile device horizontal if images are cut off: 

The management server is accessible at http://localhost:9877/ through a standard Web browser. It can also be reached remotely by substituting the “localhost” with the external IP address of the server and adjusting the firewall.

This solution uses the Windows Single Sign-On and comes with advanced user roles and delegation functionality for large and remote infrastructures. You can protect unlimited devices with a single installation and assign different users to manage different devices. 

On an Android mobile device, the interface looks like this:

It’s not exactly a responsive design, but we didn’t notice any functionality limitation when accessing the server from a smartphone. 

It does the job just fine, and presumably future versions will have evolved mobile interfaces that will be smoother – but for now, it works. 

Configuring your first back-up

Before enabling your first back-up, you need to decide where to store your data. Acronis hybrid cloud architecture provides a number of different options, from local storage to SFTP, cloud and even good old-fashioned tape, which is still en vogue for those who rely on it. 

There’s also an inbuilt data replication functionality that allows you to copy backups from one location to another behind the scenes for extra protection.

Acronis also offers easy connection to its own cloud, and we tried that out for this review.

If you have used Acronis Cloud before, and are using the same login credentials, you’ll see all your previous backups in one place, even if they belong to a different server. This data immediately becomes available for recovery. There is also an option to run back-ups as virtual machines (“Run as VM”), which may prove to be invaluable in a disaster recovery (DR) situation.

Now that we have added a cloud storage account, we can go back and create our first back-up plan – an essential step in any back-up scenario! 

We already had a back-up agent installed on this test server, so all we need to do is click the Enable Backup button.

Creating the aforementioned back-up plan involves selecting what to back up, where to back up, and how often to back up. Most other parameters can be left with their default settings.

Each device can have unlimited number of back-up plans. For example, you can supplement your weekly full server back-ups with daily or even hourly back-ups of Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Exchange, Active Directory, and Oracle Database applications.

As soon as you run your first back-up, you’ll see a status update on the main dashboard.

This dashboard consists of multiple customisable widgets, and every back-up action can be followed by an email notification.

Back-up administrators will appreciate the ability to receive clear error notifications and scheduled back-up reports, so you can simplify back-up monitoring, optimise issue resolution and make life easier while ensuring your back-ups actually did happen. 

Acronis Notary

Then there’s the Notary feature. When backing up separate files and folders, Acronis Backup 12.5 provides an option to notarise files with the help of the Acronis Notary blockchain-based technology, with blockchain one of the many new modern buzzwords of the moment, while also being an actually useful new technology. 

Effectively, Acronis calculates a SHA-256 hash, or fingerprint, for each file, and stores it in the “Ethereum” blockchain. 

For those needing a quick refresher, SHA is the “Secure Hash Algorithm”, and it’s a “cryptographic signature of a data file”.

Comparing two hashes in the future allows uses to verify the integrity of data. If two hashes are the same, the file has not been modified. If they differ, it means the file or data is not original. This is particularly useful for legal documents or even back-ups, to make sure that the back-up that you’re restoring has not been tampered with by hackers.

Blockchain-based data certification is only available when backing up files and folders. It is activated by switching on the “Notarisation” option, although you’ll see it spelt US-style with a "z". 

Notarised files are then marked with a special icon in the form of a ribbon.

Clicking “Verify” launches the verification procedure, which involves generating a new hash and comparing this hash with the one stored in the blockchain.

Acronis also provides instructions on how to verify the file integrity manually.

Acronis Active Protection

Acronis Backup 12.5 comes with Acronis Active Protection. This is a built-in technology that automatically blocks illegal ransomware attacks and also promises to instantly recover any ransomware-encrypted data.

In light of ongoing recent ransomware outbreaks, both in Australia and around the world, including the recent WannaCry fiasco, it becomes evident that traditional data security measures are not enough, and need to be augmented with a secure back-up. 

Back-up remains the only sure way to mitigate cyber attacks, but it’s well known that ransomware also targets back-ups to improve the chances of getting the ransom – especially for consumers who only rely on a plugged-in back-up hard drive to keep a copy of everything, rather than also ensuring additional offline and online back-ups are also made. 

Acronis Active Protection is meant to protect data and its back-up copies from such attacks and potentially reduce Recovery Time & Point Objectives (RPO & RTO) by removing the need to manually restore affected systems.  

The feature is only available for Microsoft Windows machines in this release, and it needs to be activated manually for each device by setting the Self-Protection option to “on”, but no doubt Acronis will expand this feature more widely in future versions to help eliminate the threat of ransomware for as many of its customers across as many platforms as possible. 

That said, the main target of ransomware attacks at the moment is Windows systems, so it’s clear why Acronis set out to protect Windows environments first. 

Once activated, we were able to test the anti-ransomware feature using an Acronis-provided special script for reviewers that emulates ransomware behaviour. The emulator encrypts all files inside a given folder.

Within a few seconds, Acronis Active Protection detects the ransonware activity and restores the affected files from cache or your backup.

More info on how it all works is here.

 

At the same time, Acronis Backup 12.5 generates a warning message notifying you of the attack and the resultant restoration. 

 

Adding another machine

Since Acronis Backup 12.5 supports over 20 different workloads, we decided to add a Linux (Ubuntu) server to our virtualised cluster. If you’re an experienced Linux user, you should find the installation easy, and Acronis provides detailed instructions on how to prepare your machine for the installation.

Since we’ve already installed the management server, we just need a back-up agent.

You will also need to enter the IP address and login details of the management server. After about five minutes, the new server will appear in the control panel.

There is no difference in setting up back-up plans for Windows or Linux servers.

Data recovery

To make things interesting and to test Acronis’ cross-platform compatibility, we decided to restore a Windows back-up on a Linux server.

Here we are restoring C:\TEST from a Windows server to /root/ on a Linux server.

Logging in to the Linux server confirmed the data recovery success.

Conclusion

Acronis Backup 12.5 is easy to install, configure and use, even for people with limited technical experience. I’m not a server or VM expert by any means, as I prefer the consumer and end-user arena, but as my friend and I played with the software, it was all very easy. 

Adding a second server was straightforward and uncomplicated. Protecting different operating systems with the same solution and through the same interface has the potential to dramatically reduce the complexity of enterprise backup and make the life of admins easier. 

The ability to restore data from one server to another extends the functionality of data protection one step further, meaning you can use Acronis Backup 12.5 as a migration tool between servers and even different environments.

Blockchain-based data certification is easy to set up and use – a great feature for legal, medical, and IP organisations whose business depends on data integrity, and a great use of blockchain technology beyond its bitcoin roots. 

Last, but not least, automated protection of data from ransomware puts Acronis Backup 12.5 ahead of the rest. The recent WannaCry ransomware outbreak exposed the need for a secure back-up to complement traditional security programs, and Acronis delivers an easy-to-use solution available to everyone.

You’ve got the 30-day trial period to test it all out for yourself to see how easily and well it works in your own environments, so for more info and to download a copy, click here.  

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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